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Food bank nation: women in the home, the poor on the streets

The reasons why up to 500,000 people in the UK need emergency food aid are inherently gendered.  Low pay, the rise in food prices, and punitive welfare reforms work in tandem with regressive Tory gender policies to push women and the poor to the brink.

Samir Jeraj
27 January 2014

If dole queues and workhouses were the tropes of previous economic downturns, the ‘food bank’ will likely be what we collectively remember about this recession – the time when the 6th richest country in the world couldn't feed itself. In this, the UK joins Canada, where 20 years of cuts to social security have left 800 000 people reliant on food banks in a population half that of the UK, and the US where benefit cuts are hitting 48 million Americans.

The reasons why the UK has perhaps around 500,000 people needing emergency food aid are inherently gendered reasons. These reasons reach into the household, and the workplace, so it is about time we looked at them with gender in mind. Women face a 'triple burden' of a job (or multiple jobs), family/home, and caring for elderly relatives. 2.04 million women are still classified as 'stay at home' parents, with around 200,000 men in the same position. Research on food banks in the UK and elsewhere has generally found that there are three main reasons why people use them: falling wages, rising food prices, and inadequate social security.

In the UK most food banks are provided by the Trussell Trust, who opened their first bank in 2000 and now have around 300 across the UK. They accept people who are 'referred' to them by organisations like the Citizens' Advice Bureau, health visitors, the Job Centre, and local councils. They receive a voucher, which can be redeemed for three days’ worth of emergency food from a food bank. If someone has to use emergency food aid more than three times in six months then their case is examined to see if other support can be provided. Other organisations and groups run food banks, but the general procedure outlined is roughly true of most of them.

Low pay

The link between wages and prices in the UK was broken during the 1980s. Deindustrialisation and the collapse of collective bargaining power meant wages plummeted and unemployment soared. The response was an expansion in debt to finance current spending (and housing in particular), a trend which has continued into this recession. A recent study from the government's Money Advice Service concluded that two-thirds of those in debt are women. Whilst 2.2 million women are now classified as 'breadwinners', this is generally in low-income households.

Research from the Resolution Foundation found that most low paid workers are women, and another study by the Trades Union Council concluded that the number of young women in low paid jobs had tripled in the past 20 years.  One recent column by Zoe Williams argued for a return to rationing as the present situation was the result of a lack of money (as opposed to a lack of food), stoked by government policy.

Rise in food prices and other cost of living

In 2008, global food prices were at their highest in 30 years. In 2010, they were even higher. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN has even launched an 'Initiative on Soaring Food Prices'. The Food Price Index is now at 206.3, compared to 91.1 in 2000.

How does this affect our weekly shop then? Between the start of the Credit Crunch and 2012, the cost of an average weekly shop went up by 33%. In 2013, food prices have risen about four times as much as wages. A report for Which? Magazine found that 78% of people were concerned about food price rises, 41% said it was causing them stress, and 29% were struggling to feed themselves or their family. 

Welfare reform

Welfare reform in the UK has had a massive impact on the rise of food banks. Cuts to housing benefit, council tax benefit reforms, and the freezing of child benefit have all contributed to a income crisis for many people in and out of work. In particular, a new benefit sanctions policy initiated in October 2012 has led to a massive increase in people who are having benefits sanctioned. A Freedom of Information request earlier this year revealed that 1,510 men and 62,590 women who were receiving Income Support as single parents had this benefit sanctioned. From the same information, three times as many men receive sanctions for Job Seekers Allowance, and a similar proportion of men were referred to 'Mandatory Work Activities'.

One of the symbols of the cruelty of forced work is the young women who won a court case against being forced to work for free in Poundland, Cait Reilly. An investigation by the Guardian showed that a large number of unemployed young people were being forced to work up to 30 hours a week for free by the Job Centre (ironically the people who are meant to help them find actual jobs).

Single parent households have been badly hit by welfare reforms. Research from the charity Gingerbread showed that (87 per cent) of single parents had borrowed money or sought emergency welfare support in the last year. Nor is there an end in sight to these financial pressures, the Women’s Budget Group is predicting that single parents can expect their income to drop 15% by 2015/16 as a result of government policies. Reforms of child maintenance and of legal aid in family law cases also add to the pressures facing single parent households.

Another figure who has emerged as a representative of the struggles faced by single-parent families is Jack Monroe. Her employer's refusal to grant flexible working, combine with the reality of a broken benefits system, illustrate the pressures and reasons that people need food banks. Revealingly, since being able to find work, Jack Monroe has been the subject of vicious attacks by conservative and right-wing commentators.

Women in the home, poor people on the streets

 Austerity is being used to reinvent the idea of women as mothers and carers, and pushed out of public life beyond these 'caring', voluntary roles. What the rise of food banks reflects on top of this is the changing view society has of the poor. The notion of the undeserving poor has been making a strong come back in political rhetoric from both the Coalition and the opposition Labour Party. The idea seems to be that anyone who is unemployed should be spending 24/7 applying for jobs in a darkened room because 'that's what the poor deserve'.

Sadly, this has been absorbed into public opinion. The British Social Attitudes Survey shows that 30-40% of the population believe the UK should spend more on welfare benefits, compared to 50-60% at the end of the 1980s. The number of people who felt support for the unemployed was a priority has fallen from one in three in 1983, to one in ten today. Similarly, just under half the population felt that benefits were too low in 1983, whereas now that figure is closer to 20%, and more than half the population now believe benefits are too high compared to roughly 30% of people in the 1980s and 1990s.

 Now the UK government has slightly warmed to the existence of food banks (after initial and some continuing hostility). Welfare Minister, Iain Duncan-Smith (once known as the quiet man of politics) angered the faith-based Trussell Trust by claiming they were scaremongering over the explosion of food bank demand.

From a conservative point of view, food banks are hailed as being part of the Big Society, however shifting the emphasis to prescribed items takes us back to a Victorian view of assistance. By slowly withdrawing welfare support and focusing on ensuring basic goods rather than a basic income, the state can prescribe the actions of the poor and recreate the old idea that the way to get people into work was to make unemployment the most horrific experience it could be.

Food banks themselves, and the people who run them, have a far less ideological view. They can see that what needs to happen is for incomes to rise through a decent social security system, a living wage to help those trapped in low pay, and that what they are doing should be a stop gap rather than a permanent feature.

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